INDIANAPOLIS— Judge William Nelson appeared conflicted as he sat on the bench Wednesday afternoon in Marion County Superior Court 18.
He struggled with whether to accept a plea agreement from a former Beech Grove teacher’s aide, Michael Lazzell.
Lazzell admitted to fondling his genitals while working at Beech Grove Middle School in January 2019.
Judge Nelson said the facts of the case were “very bothersome to me as they would be to any parent.”
Court documents say female students, one of them 13-years-old, told their councilors that Lazzell masturbated in front of them in math class while watching his school-issued computer.
Beech Grove Police investigated and found “soft porn” had been accessed at the time the girls said Lazzell had been touching himself, court documents allege.
“You were in a position of trust,” Judge Nelson told Lazzell. “These children looked up to you and you let them down. I think teaching is one of the most challenging and respected career choices.”
Judge Nelson said he was very concerned about the impact a trial would have on the teenage victims and witnesses in the case.
As a result, he accepted Lazzell’s plea of guilty to public indecency, a misdemeanor, and sentenced the former teacher’s aide to a year of probation.
As a result of the plea agreement, prosecutors dismissed a more serious felony charge of performing sexual conduct in the presence of a minor.
“I’m going to accept your plea, but I’m reluctant to do so,” said Judge Nelson. “I appreciate you taking the responsibility of admitting guilt.”
As part of the plea agreement, Lazzell must also undergo a psychosexual assessment, follow recommendations of the treatment provider, have no contact with the victims, and must pay $625 in court costs, fines and probation fees.
“There’s not an amount of money that can account for the harm done for these children,” said Judge Nelson. “I’m not interested in money. I’m interested that you do what you need to do while on probation.”
Lazzell and his attorney declined to comment to WRTV both before and after the hearing.
Lazzell told the judge he’s currently working part-time in retail.
His substitute teaching permit is currently expired, and it’s not yet clear if or when he could teach again.
If an educator is convicted of one of the felony offenses listed here, their teaching license is revoked.
However, public indecency, a misdemeanor, is not on the list of offenses that would revoke someone’s teaching license.
The Indiana Department of Education says it is monitoring the criminal case against Lazzell but they have not taken any action against his license.
"If he applied for another license, IDOE would evaluate any prior acts committed by the applicant for which a teaching license may be suspended or revoked, and the applicant may be denied on that basis," said IDOE spokesperson Holly Lawson. "Additionally, as part of the hiring process, state law requires schools to conduct an expanded criminal background check."
Following the 2019 incident, Beech Grove City Schools told Lazzell they no longer needed his services, and he was removed from school property.
School district unaware of previous arrest for public indecency
Some say Lazzell should never have been in the classroom to begin with.
Records show he was arrested near Eagle Creek Park in 2014 for public indecency, the same misdemeanor charge he’s facing now.
Lazzell’s 2014 public indecency charge was dismissed six months later, court records show.
It’s not clear why the case was dismissed, and the probable cause affidavit was destroyed as part of the state’s retention policy, so it’s unclear exactly what the allegations were.
In Indiana, a public indecency charge involves participation in sexual activity including appearing nude and exposing genitals in a public space.
Beech Grove City Schools says they were not aware of Lazzell’s 2014 arrest when he was brought in to work as a teacher’s aide.
The district says Lazzell worked for Kelly Education, a staffing company that contracts with Beech Grove.
“Beech Grove does not see background reports,” said Melody Stevens, Communications Director for the school district. “Kelly clears their employees according to the legal standard and ensures the integrity of an employee, as any employer would do. The background check service is included in the fee we pay to Kelly Education Services to provide us with substitute teachers.”
It’s not clear if Kelly Education’s background check found the 2014 arrest or not.
Kelly Education won’t tell us which screening firm they used, and the company has not responded to several emails from WRTV Investigates asking what happened.
“Our substitute teachers undergo rigorous screening and background checks,” the company said in a statement to WRTV. “Kelly Education conducts background screens, education verification and reference checks for every candidate in compliance with applicable federal and state laws, and district requirements to ensure only the most qualified substitute teachers are placed in classrooms."
Contracted school employees must complete criminal history checks
Safe Hiring Solutions in Danville is a background screening company that does background checks for thousands of schools across the country, but Beech Grove City Schools and Kelly Education are not clients.
Founder and CEO Mike McCarty said even though Lazzell’s 2014 charge was later dismissed, it should have come up in a criminal history check.
"Usually, it's about a seven-year period that arrest data is reportable under federal law,” said McCarty.
Safe Hiring Solutions also screens vendors and contractors who work in schools.
“They're held to the same standard if they have any direct or ongoing contact with a student,” said McCarty. “If they have any access to children whether they work in the cafeteria or they’re a substitute teacher, then they have to complete the same criminal history check and Department of Child Services index check that an employee with the district has."
McCarty emphasized schools are responsible for making sure employees and contracted workers are cleared to work with children.
“Really the onus, through the statute, is on the school district to ensure that their contractor is meeting those requirements,” said McCarty.
School districts have to follow federal EEOC requirements and are legally required to consider applicants with criminal backgrounds.
If a school denies someone employment, they have to explain why the arrest or conviction could impact the position, said McCarty.
“Anything of a sexual nature should be a game stopper for a school district,” said McCarty.
Schools are also limited in how they can access information about a candidate.
“I can't even go on Google, and if I see something on social media, how do I verify it?” said McCarty. “Even though there's a treasure trove of information available, there's been some really strong restrictions placed on HR professionals on how and when they can use this data.”
McCarty said schools can face discrimination lawsuits if they do not follow EEOC requirements.
“You’re trying to help people who have made mistakes, but at the same time I’ve got the care and custody of children, so how do I look at the same information and balance that with keeping children safe?” said McCarty.
State senator looks to change Indiana law
Senator Aaron Freeman, R-Indianapolis, is a former prosecutor, current criminal defense attorney and a father.
“I’m never going to say any law is perfect,” said Freeman. “It seems like something happened here that shouldn’t have.”
Freeman plans to address the gaps in the next legislative session, which begins in January 2022.
“We need to ensure that everybody that is put in front of a child is an appropriate person,” said Freeman. “I’ll certainly work with the folks at the statehouse to make sure that is something we address in the next legislative session.”
Freeman is concerned schools do not have to notify the Indiana Department of Education of the alleged misconduct until there’s a criminal conviction on certain offenses, a process that can take years.
"When you get the first allegation, I think the Department of Education needs to be made aware of that,” said Freeman. “Someone's license shouldn't be entirely dependent on a conviction. We should investigate that and we should want the Department of Education to know about it and do a thorough investigation."
Freeman is also concerned Beech Grove, which is in his district, did not know about Lazzell’s 2014 public indecency charge which was dismissed.
“They need to know it,” said Freeman. “Not just want to know, they need to know.”